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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

Chapter 8 - Ovid's witchcraft

from Part II - Reception as Self-Fashioning


Ovid's influence on Shakespeare has been an active topic at least since Richard Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare in 1767. Robert Kilburn Root made an attempt to treat the matter systematically and comprehensively in 1904; his conclusion that over 80 per cent of Shakespeare's very numerous references to classical mythology are specifically Ovidian in their provenance still stands, and helped establish the study of Ovid's role in Shakespeare's creative process as a more or less permanent scholarly and critical franchise. A fresh and newly sophisticated round of activity in that franchise begins in the mid-1980s, with William Carroll's The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (1985), the lengthy last chapter of Leonard Barkan's The Gods Made Flesh (1986), and various shorter publications; it culminates in a capstone work, Jonathan Bate's Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), which, like Barkan's book, remains in print. This work is marked by a desire to conceptualize “Ovidianism” at a new pitch of subtlety, to search for it in ways that go beyond more or less direct references to particular myths or imitations of particular passages. The results have been copious and impressive, and subtend some broader affirmations about Ovid's centrality to Shakespeare's imagination: “by reading Shakespeare's reading of Ovid we may come to a remarkably full…picture of the sort of artist that Shakespeare was.” That sort is a somewhat contrary humanist:

his sceptical, dynamic temperament would have had a certain resistance to the humanist implication that “the essential nature of human beings” does not change; what Ovid taught him was that everything changes…and this accorded with his desire as a dramatist to examine human beings at key moments of change in their lives, such as when they fall in love or make a renunciation or, most drastically, decide to kill themselves. Ovid's philosophy of instability modified the “essentialist” premiss of humanism even as his exemplary force sustained it.